Expanding Social Security – Decreasing Inequality

Popular Economics Weekly

What, you say? We should expand, not shrink, social security benefits in the face of horrendous budget deficits of late? Elizabeth Warren put into the Senate Budget proposal for 2015 an amendment to protect social security, and even increase its benefits, when conservative pundits and pols have been chanting for years that it would drive the federal budget into bankruptcy. (Her amendment was defeated by the Republican majority, of course.)

And now potential Republican candidates such as Chris Christie are finding other ways to downsize social security, when social security isn’t the problem, and when record income inequality is getting worse during the recovery, not better.

No, what has driven the budget deficits have been concerted efforts by Republicans since R Reagan to cut maximum tax rates from 70 percent to the current 35 percent, while cutting government programs that would boost growth and productivity, such as public infrastructure spending, education, and even Research and Development.

All have proven records of increasing productivity—from our national freeway system, to DARPA’s funding of the Internet. Republicans have even gone so far as to cause a downgrade of sovereign treasury debt from its historic AAA rating by shutting down the government briefly in 2012.

Warren’s recent effort was the product of a long progressive campaign that preceded her election. Pundits, such as the Huffington Post and the New York Times’ Paul Krugman have been pushing for the expansion of retirement benefits for years. In the past decade, left-of-center policy wonks became increasingly worried about retirement security for Americans. Corporate pension plans—many of which offered decent and secure retirement payments—were going the way of the dinosaurs. In 1980, about 40 percent of private-sector workers received such pension payouts; by 2006, that number had dropped to 15 percent.

In general, many retirement plans had shifted to private 401(k) accounts, and these often were woefully inadequate for supporting retirees in a climate of stagnating wages and scant savings. And the recent Wall Street collapse ravaged pensions and personal investments, illustrating that 401(k)s were a shaky foundation for retirement. Progressives and retirement policy wonks began looking for another option. The obvious answer was expanding Social Security.

In March 2012, the AFL-CIO called for “changing the terms of debate by focusing on the crisis of retirement security.” Over the next year and a half, progressives policy shops and activists answered the call to arms. In April 2013, the New America Foundation, a progressive think tank, published a plan to expand benefits. “Our main purpose in doing that was to move the goal posts,” says Michael Lind, a cofounder of the New America Foundation. Around the same time, two Democratic senators, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Mark Begich of Alaska, introduced bills to expand benefits.

Yet in November 2013, the Washington Post editorial board slammed the expansion push as “liberalism gone awry.” It noted that “even the rich have finite resources; government can only go to that well so many times…Unchecked entitlement spending for the elderly crowds out spending” on young Americans and other priorities,” said the Post.

This is utter supidity. The Washington Post is now defending the rich? What “finite” resources we have created have all gone to the wealthiest since the end of the Great Recession. They garnered 90 percent of the income to be precise, while the 90 percent’s income bracket actually declined, mainly because wages and salaries have declined while the financial markets rallied for investors.

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Graph: Seeking Alpha

The result has been anemic growth for the past 2 decades, far below historic growth rates. “In the last two decades, like in the case of many other developed nations, its growth rates have been decreasing,” said Trading Economics. “If in the 50’s and 60’s the average growth rate was above 4 percent, in the 70’s and 80’s dropped to around 3 percent. In the last ten years, the average rate has been below 2 percent and since the second quarter of 2000 has never reached the 5 percent level.”

That’s what happens when all income gains go to the top income brackets, and actual laws prevent wage and salary earners from even bargaining for more, such as Wisconsin’s banning of collective bargaining for its public employees that include teachers and health care workers.

There is good reason to expand social security benefits. There just has to be the political will to pay for it, and given the gains of those who can most afford to, we should be worrying more about growing the economy than a budget deficit that is the result of decades of anti-growth policies.

Harlan Green © 2015

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly, The Huffington Post, and PeaceCorpsWorldwide.org.
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